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The book everyone wants

November 2nd, 2005 · 7 Comments

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Michaela took a picture of the screen

Okay, I’m exaggerating. This is only the book every parent wants.

Okay, take that back too. Perhaps it’s only the book that every geek parent wants.

Nat Torkington posted

I want software and a book that’ll help me get my 4-6 year old kids into programming. Gerv wants something similar but for twelve year olds. In my best of all possible worlds, there’d be an O’Reilly Radar reader out there with kids who wants to teach them how to program.

Robert Scoble has asked in previous posts how to help his son become interested in programming.

This is the book everyone seems to want. Every geek parent that is.

I’m not in any position to pen this prescription. As Ted emphasized, it would be best if the one who writes such a book has already succeeded in such an endeavor. All our girls know so far is how to draw shapes with a simple python turtle program. And that happens only if they can figure out how to get past the password dialogue box and spell commands correctly.

And even if our daughters, all three, were happily hacking away (on Open Source, what else?!) as their favorite hobby in high school, I would still be reluctant to write a book telling others how to repeat our experience in their own families.

Perhaps I’m jaded. The other day I picked up a homeschooling book, one I’d heard mentioned many times, needing inspiration, and was disillusioned to discover that at least the opening chapters were filled with the father’s descriptions of his two prodigies who begged for violins at 14 months and sang Handel’s Messiah perfectly the first time without any vocal training. How is that helpful or even encouraging to me?

As a home educator, I’ve read and seen enough to know that not every book or theory works for every family. Each child is different. Each personality, both parent and progeny, plays a part in the mix. Each family has circumstances and factors of its own. In the education lists I read, no sooner does one parent make a suggestion, then another parent pipes up and says “that didn’t work for us.”

While on the one hand I would welcome any book that helped children learn how to program, I fear for the one who writes it. Already it seems there are many expectations. Many parents who hope such a book would help bring their child into the world of technology.

Yet each child is different. What makes one kid’s heart sing might make another’s stomach puke. What turns one kid on might turn another off. There is no magic formula. There’s no way to guarantee geekiness can be transferred via DNA. But I imagine someone may be working on that one…

This is a problem many parents face, not only hackers. How can I get my child interested in X?! Maybe it’s music. Maybe it’s the family business. Maybe it’s football. Millions of dollars a year are poured into this dilemma. I speak from personal experience, as a recipient of some of these well-intended funds.

From where I am as a parent, it seems there are a few clear choices. If the parent wants the child to be interested in X, then the parent should be interested in X. And the parent should try to find X-related activities that might interest the child.

But no matter how great a part X is in the family life, the relationship between parent and child should be greater. Above all, the mother and father should try to build a strong relationship with their children. As a side benefit of the bond, the more a child’s heart is open to the parents, the higher probability the child may be interested in what the parents like.

That last statement may smack of insincerity and so I must emphasize the need for honesty, authenticity and acceptance in the relationship. So far, from my experience as both a child and a parent, I think some of the most difficult struggles for family relationships come from parents and children learning to accept each other as they each are. Especially as mothers and fathers, we need to release our children and allow them to become whoever they were meant to become whether or not that is who we imagined them to be. It’s a wild balance of finding the “angel in the marble”.

Sometimes from birth, even from conception, our children defy our expectation and begin to break out of the boxes where we want to place them. It’s not wrong to want our kids to enjoy amazing aspects of what we call life. It’s good for kids to learn how to program computers. But I think it can be hazardous to a family’s health for parents to put too much hope in their children becoming hackers. Or to put hope in a publication. A book is only a book.

But I hope someone – or more than one someone – writes Hacking for Kids. When O’Reilly publishes the book, I’ll pick up a copy. And I’ll teach my kids some programming (or probably Ted will). But I won’t hold my breath, waiting for them to become hackers. Instead I’ll be breathlessly watching to celebrate whatever butterfly emerges from this cocoon called childhood.


Here’s a book idea that interests me. Instead of Hacking for Kids, or in addition to it, interview a number of people who became hackers when they were children, and compile their various experiences, advice and opinions into a book. I’d like to read that one too.

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7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Peter // Nov 2, 2005 at 11:08 pm

    There’s not a whole lot out today that’s aimed towards younger kids. Historically I think of a few aimed at parents/teachers of younger kids, like Seymour Papert’s book. You might also take a look at Squeak, since Alan Kay’s original and continuing mission with Smalltalk and Squeak was teaching kids, but I never got anywhere with it.

    When I was a kid and BASIC on a timesharing system was the only game in town, there were books that had listings of BASIC programs for little games like hangman and tic-tac-toe. You could learn a lot by just typing one in and then modifying it.

    The only programming I ever managed to teach my son when he was homeschooling was a bit of Scheme using the teach-scheme.org programming environment and “How To Design Programs,” which is available free (link at teach-scheme.org) or in dead-tree form from MIT press. The good thing about Scheme is that it uses an extremely simple syntax, so you don’t spend all your time worrying about where to find the missing semicolon.

  • 2 Todd Blanchard // Nov 4, 2005 at 12:35 pm

    The book you want exists. This is it:

    Squeak: Learn Programming with Robots (Technology in Action) (Paperback)
    by Stéphane Ducasse


    It teaches programming in a fun and explorational way. Highly recommended.

  • 3 Bob V // Nov 11, 2005 at 6:04 am

    Hi Julie,
    Here is a related resource:
    The blog on that on that web site generally has a lot of good stuff for kids (and adults.) It isn’t programming per se though.

  • 4 Alejandro Garcia // Nov 20, 2005 at 11:20 pm

    This book is great to teach kids How to program

    Computer Programming is Fun! is a beginning programing course designed for teaching yourself how to program using Python (a simple computer language). The book is organized into 20 lessons followed by a project chapter. The lessons contain material to be read, as well as lots of hands-on exercises to build skills and enhance understanding. Most lessons are followed by a short quiz (answers are in the back of the book). 198 pages. Requires a computer with Microsoft Windows 98, 2000, or XP or Linux. Recommended for ages 12+.

  • 5 rebecca // Nov 21, 2005 at 8:28 pm

    Here’s another one, microworlds, which Papert is still involved with:


  • 6 why // Nov 22, 2005 at 11:30 am

    Hi, Julie. I feel the same exaggerated impulse as you to get machines into the hands of children. I’ve had success teaching teenagers in my neighborhood, but yeah they were all rather precocious to begin with.

    I’m working on a book called The Little Orthley Coder’s Book which will be part novel and part coding adventure, with code focused around the programming language Ruby and a bit of HTML as well. It’ll have a similar feeling to my other tech-manual-slash-novel: http://poignantguide.net/. I’ll be talking about the new book at SXSW in March and the first draft should open about then.

    There’s no way we’re going to get kids interested in programming while it’s still the notation of slaves buried in the twisting maze of cubicle walls. Our development tools are designed for those slaves. Our books read like they’re designed to be part of a deep stack of cross-referencing material. I feel like the biggest ill we have towards teaching children is that our instruction hung up on the same writing styles and approaches that are used in the corporate kingdom. Kids just don’t read that kind of stuff.

    I totally agree: I wish a lot more people would start to take a stab at this.

  • 7 Elliot Lee // Dec 1, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    Interesting ideas, but I imagine that everyone is different. In my case, neither of my parents had nearly as much interest in computers as I did. Is it about getting children interested in what their parents are interested in? Somehow, computers are something I developed a passion for not because I saw anyone else interested in it, but because of the nature of computing itself and the way it was so conducive to things I personally loved: creativity, logic, design, gadgets, toys.

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